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COLERIDGE AS A PHILOSOPHICAL CRITIC."
THE present century has been eminently characterized by its critical spirit. Institutions and opinions, men, manners, and literature, have all been subjected to the most exhausting analysis. The moment a thing becomes a fixed fact in the community, criticism breaks it to pieces, curious to scan its elements. It is not content to admire the man until satisfied with his appearance as a skeleton. The science of criticism is thus in danger of becoming a kind of intellectual anatomy. The living body of a poem or institution is dissected, and its principle of life sought in a process which annihilates life at its first step. An analysis thus employing no other implements but those furnished by the understanding, must imperfectly interpret what has proceeded from the imagination. The soul ever eludes the knife of the dissector, however keen and cunning.
The charlatanism which spreads and sprawls in almost every department of literature and life is doubtless one cause of this analytical spirit. A man placed in our century finds himself surrounded by quackeries. Collision with these begets in him a feeling of impatience and petulant opposition, and ends often in forcing him to
*American Review, June, 1846.
apply individual tests to all outward things. By this course, he at least preserves his own personality amid the whiz and burr around him. None of that spurious toleration which comes from feebleness of thought, or laxity of will, or indifference to truth, makes him lend his ear to every moan of the noodle, and every promise of the quack. But this self-consciousness, so jealous of encroachment and battling against all external influences, shuts his mind to new truth as well as old error. He preserves his common sense at the expense of his comprehension. He is sensible and barren. His tiresome self-repetition becomes, at last, as hollow a mockery as the clap-trap of the charlatan. This tendency to individualism — this testing the value of all things by their agreement or discordance with individual modes of thinking—subjects the author to hard conditions. He is necessarily viewed from an antagonistic position, and considered an impostor until proved a reality. We think he is determined to fool us if he can, and are therefore most delighted and refreshed when we have analyzed the seeming genius down into the real quack. The life of the intellect thus becomes negative rather than positive — devoted to the exposure of error, not to the assimilation of truth. Men of strong minds in this generation have established a sort of intellectual feudal system — each baron walled in from approach, and sallying out only to prey upon his brothers. Everybody being on his guard against everybody else, an author has to fight his way into esteem. He must have sufficient force of being to be victorious over others; and his readers are the spoils of his conquest. He attacks minds intrenched in their own thoughts and prejudices, and determined not to yield as long as their defences will hold out. The poetaster in Wycherley's play binds the widow to a chair, in order that she may be compelled to listen to his well-penned verses; and a resisting criticism, somewhat after the manner of the widow, is practised unconsciously by most educated readers. It is mortifying to become the vassal of a superior nature; to feel the understanding bowed and bent before a conquering intellect, and be at once petulant and impotent. Butler's reasoning and Milton's rhetoric, fastening themselves as they do on the mind or heart, become at times distasteful, from the fact of our incapacity to resist their power. It is from men of education and ability that great genius experiences most opposition. The multitude can scarcely resist a powerful nature, but are forced into the current of its thoughts and impulses. The educated, on the contrary, have implements of defence. Their minds have become formal and hardened. Coleridge felt this deeply, when he exclaimed, “Who will dare to force his way out of the crowd—not of the mere vulgar, but of the vain and banded aristocracy of intellect—and presume to join the almost supernatural beings that stand by themselves aloof?” This aristocracy furnishes generally the champions of accredited opinions and processes. It flouts the innovations of genius and philanthropy, as well as the fooleries of knavery and ignorance. It desires nothing new, good or bad. The influence of this spirit on criticism in the present century has been incalculable. In those cases where personal and partisan feelings have not converted literary judgments into puffs or libels, the analytical and unsympathizing mode in which critical inquiries have been prosecuted has been unjust to original genius. Poets have been tried by tests which their writings were never intended to meet. Where a work is a mere collection of parts, loosely strung together, and animated by no central principle of vitality, analysis has only to cut the string to destroy its rickety appearance of life. As a large majority of productions, purporting to come from the human mind, are heterogenous, not homogeneous, mechanical, not organic, - the works of what Fichte calls the hodmen of letters, – the course pursued by the critic, at least, exposes deception. But the process by which imposture may be exposed is not necessarily that by which truth can be evolved. A life spent in examining deceptions and quackeries produces little fruit. A well-trained power to discern excellence would include all the negative advantages of the other, and end also in the positive benefit of mental enlargement and elevation. Reading and judgment result in nothing but barrenness, when they simply confirm the crit..'s opinion of himself. The mind is enriched only by assimilation, and true intellectual independence comes not from the complacent dulness of the egotist. The mind that would be monarchical should not be content with a petty domain, but have whole provinces of thought for its dependencies. To comprehend another mind, we must first be tolerant to its peculiarities, and place ourselves in the attitude of learners. After that, our judgment will be of value. The thing itself must be known before its excellence can be estimated; and it must be reproduced before it can be known. By contemplation rather than analysis, by self-forgetfulness rather than self-confidence, does the elusive and ethereal life of genius yield itself to the mind of the critic. If we examine the writings of some of the most popular critics of the present century, we shall find continual proofs of the narrowness to which we have referred. In a vast majority of cases, the criticism is merely the grating of one individual mind against another. The critic understands little but himself, and his skill consists in a dextrous substitution of his own peculiarities for the laws of taste and beauty, or in sneeringly alluding to the difference between the work he is reviewing and works of established fame. Lord Jeffrey is an instance. The position in which he was placed, as editor of the most influential review ever published, was one requiring the most comprehensive thought and the most various attainments. At the period the Edinburgh Review was started, the literary republic swarmed with a host of vain and feeble poetasters, whose worthlessness invited destruction; but in the midst of these there were others, the exponents of a new and original school of poetry, whose genius required interpretation. Now, the test to be applied to a critic, under such circumstances, is plain. Was his taste catholic 2 Did he perceive and elucidate excellence, as well as detect and punish pretension? Did he see the dawn on the mountain tops, as well as the will-o'-the-wisps in the bogs beneath Did he have any principles on which to ground his judgments, apart from the impertinences of his personality ? We think not. Not in his writings are we to look for a philosophy of criticism. He could see that the consumptive hectic on the cheek of mediocrity was not the ruddy glow of genius. He could torture feebleness and folly on the rack of his ridicule. He could demonstrate that Mr. William Hayley and Mr. Robert Merry were poor successors of Pope and Dryden. But when he came to consider men like Wordsworth and Coleridge, we find the nimble-witted critic to be, after all, blind in one eye.